For the first time in 364 days, Tom Aspinall will make the walk to the octagon, headlining once again at the O2 Arena in London just as he did nearly a full year ago.
“It was long,” Aspinall told The Post via Zoom on Monday when looking back at his absence, “but I feel like it was needed, as weird as that may sound.”
Could have done without the torn MCL, torn meniscus and damage to the ACL of his right knee though, right?
“Well, yeah, that definitely wasn’t great,” Aspinall says with a laugh ahead of the UFC main event assignment Saturday (3 p.m. ET, ESPN) against fellow top-10 heavyweight Marcin Tybura.
“Although,” he adds, “the knee injury was bothering me for a long time, so it did need to get fixed. That was gonna happen sooner or later anyway … so now that it’s done and the surgery’s done and the rehab process is done and everything, I’m glad that it’s done. I’m thankful it happened the way it did.”
A typically sunny assessment of an unfortunate situation by Aspinall (12-3, 12 finishes), the affable 30-year-old from Atherton, England who had been on a rapid rise in the sport before blowing out his knee upon throwing a kick just 15 seconds into his fight against Curtis Blaydes on last July 23.
What followed the loss — officially a TKO due to injury — tested Aspinall, a self-described “active guy” who was suddenly unable to be.
“I’m always out and about doing stuff,” he said. “If I’m not training, I’m with friends. I’ve got three small children as well, so I’m with the children. … I’m not the kind of guy who just sits at home. When you’re unable to walk and unable to do anything for yourself, basically it’s very tough mentally.
“That was the hardest bit for me. As soon as I could get up and walking and the rehab process started and stuff, I was absolutely fine. But before then, for that first kind of five, six weeks before I could even really get up and walk, it was really tough mentally, definitely.”
As much of a burden as that period was, Aspinall spun the situation into a positive once again, calling his road to recovery “the biggest learning experience of my life” in large part for helping him prioritize what’s necessary to excel as a fighter
“I wasn’t living as an athlete, or anywhere close to living as an athlete really,” says Aspinall, candidly. “You can ask anybody that I’ve trained with; I always train hard. I always train consistently and stuff like that. But realistically, as a professional athlete or as a professional MMA fighter, you only really train like three, four hours a day.
“The other 20 hours, I definitely wasn’t living like an athlete. I wasn’t recovering right. I wasn’t sleeping right. I was overtraining before a little bit. And my diet was all wrong. It just wasn’t right. And my training was wrong as well. I was training with a lot of guys who weren’t my size. I felt like I needed to be trading with heavyweights only, really, because that’s where I get the most realistic work in, as opposed to training with a lot of smaller guys, Just all kinds of different stuff. I was drinking a lot. My diet was bad. All that kind of stuff. I’m away from all that now, and I’m 100 percent focused that I’m going to be the UFC heavyweight champion. That’s the goal.”
At 6-foot-5 and in the 250-pound range, Aspinall believes he looks physically different now than in his last visit to the O2, owing to the results of his reprioritized lifestyle that he says both added lean muscle and cut down on body fat.
The UFC returning to the scene of the crime the same weekend as last year is no coincidence, as the organization tends to keep a regular schedule with its favored locales — like that annual early-November extravaganza it holds at Madison Square Garden.
It’s a no-brainer to put the popular Brit atop the card in London and energize the home crowd, even if Aspinall concedes he “potentially” could have been ready to return sooner.
Not that he’d change a thing about the way the weekend showdown against Tybura (24-7, 15 finishes) played out.
“I’m really happy with the way it turned out,” Aspinall said. “The dates are one day different to when I actually blew my knee out from a year, for being exactly a year. I think that’s perfect. I think that’s absolutely perfect because I didn’t want the O2 Arena to be, like, some taboo place for me or some scary place to go to. I think that I need to go back and fight at the O2.